Los Angeles Times

In China, tattoos border on illegal — and they're his life's work

BEIJING - Ma Chao has a strange request for his customers: Are you sure you want to do this?

Sometimes he tactfully sends them away, especially women.

To the horror of his parents, an auto factory worker and a retired street cleaner from Jilin province in northeastern China, Ma left school at the age of 14 to apprentice with a tattoo master.

Tattoos were long largely spurned in China, perceived as associated with gangsters, prisoners and crime. Even now, it is rare to see tattoos in the street or public life.

"My parents didn't want me to become a tattooist because China is quite conservative and there's a social stigma. People associate it with criminality. My parents were worried it was bad people's business. They were worried I might get involved in gangs."

But, he insisted, it was like learning any other skill.

Ma, 26, who entered the trade around 2006, has gained

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